Civil rights at charter schools

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The federal Department of Education recently issued a reminder to charter schools about their civil rights obligations.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter, the Department makes clear that “a charter school may not use admissions criteria that have the effect of excluding students on the basis of race, color, or national origin from the school without proper justification.” It also discusses the importance of recruiting broadly and encourages the cultivation of diverse student bodies. This is in contrast to the experiences in many areas, including Minnesota, where charter schools have contributed to an increase in school segregation.

Another common complaint brought against charter schools as a group is that they do not serve the same proportion of students with disabilities. In its letter, the Department of Education stresses that “charter schools must provide nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities in such a manner that students with disabilities are given an equal opportunity to participate in these services and activities.” Some charter schools already do a good job on this front, but many still struggle to do so.

The Department also expresses its expectation that charter schools will provide appropriate services to students with limited proficiency reading, writing, or speaking English, and that the admissions process should make appropriate use of interpreters and translation to ensure families of English learners have access to the schools.

Finally, the Department’s letter reiterates a point raised earlier in the year: Discipline practices must change. Too often, there are stark racial biases in suspensions, expulsions, and other discipline, and the Department clearly expects charter schools to stay in line with the rest of the country on changing those practices.

State education agencies and charter school authorizers have a responsibility to ensure charter schools are complying with these expectations and priorities, according to the letter. Additionally, charter schools cannot “retaliate against an individual for bringing concerns about possible civil rights problems to a school’s attention.”

As the birthplace of charter schools and home to a charter school system encompassing a wide range of quality and practices, Minnesota has experience with many of these concerns. It is important that we hold our public agencies and charter school authorizers responsible not just for test score growth, but also for protecting the full range of civil rights.